« PreviousContinue »
another, they every where raise and carry on the feeling, wbich is metaphysically true and profound. The debates between the Trojan chiefs on the restoring of Helen are full of knowledge of human motives and character. Troilus enters well into the philosophy of war, when he says in answer to something that falls from Hector,
" Why there you touch'd the life of our design :
The character of Hector, in the few slight indi. cations which appear of it, is made very amiable. His death is sublime, and shews in a striking light the mixture of barbarity and heroism of the age. The threats of Achilles are fatal; they carry their own means of execution with them.
“Come here about me, you, my Myrmidons,
He then finds Hector and slays him, as if he had ·been hunting down a wild beast. There is something revolting as well as terrifick in the ferocious coolness with which he singles out his prey: nor,
the splendour of the achievement reconcile us to the cruelty of the means.
The characters of Cressida and Pandarus are very amusing and instructive. The disinterested willingness of Pandarus to serve his friend in an affair which lies next his heart is immediately brought forward. “ Go thy way, Troilus, go thy way; had I a sister were a Grace, or a daughter were a Goddess, he should take his choice. O admirable man! Paris, Paris is dirt to him, and I warrant Helen, to change, would give money to boot.” This is the language he addresses to his niece: nor is she much behindband in coming into the plot. Her head is as light and fluttering as her heart. “It is the prettiest villain, she fetches her breath so short as a new ta'en sparrow.” Both characters are originals, and quite different from what they are in Chaucer. In Chaucer, Cressida is represented as a grave, sober, considerate personage, (a widow--he cannot tell her age, nor whether she has children or no) who bas an alternate eye to her character, ber interest, and her pleasure : Shakspeare's Cressida is a giddy girl, an unpractised jilt, who falls in love with Troilus, as she afterwards deserts him, from mere levity and thoughtlessness of temper. She may be wooed and won to any thing and from any thing, at a moment's warning: the other knows very well what she would be at, and sticks to it, and is more governed by substantial reasons than by caprice or vanity. Pandarus again, in Chaucer's story, is a friendly sort of gobetween, tolerably busy, officious, and forward in bringing matters to bear: but in Sbakspeare he has
a stamp exclusive and professional :" he wears the badge of his trade; he is a regular knight of the game. The difference of the manner in which the subject is treated arises perhaps less from intention, than from the different genius of the two poets. There is no double entendre in the characters of Chaucer : they are either quite serious or quite comick. In Shakspeare the ludicrous and ironical are constantly blended with the stately and the impassioned. We see Chaucer's characters as they saw themselves, not as they appeared to others or might have appeared to the poet. He is as deeply implicated in the affairs of his personages as they could be themselves. He had to go a long journey with each of them, and became a kind of necessary confidant. There is little relief, or light and shade in his pictures. The conscious smile is not seen lurkiog under the brow of grief or impatience. Every thing with him is intense and continuous-a working out of what went before.-Shakspeare never committed himself to his characters. He trifled, laughed, or wept with them as he chose. He has no prejudices for or against them; and it seems a matter of perfect indifference whether he shall be in jest or earnest. According to him “the web of our lives is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together." His genius was dramatick, as Chaucer's was historical.
He saw both sides of a question, the different views taken of it according to the different interests of the parties concerned, and he was at once an actor and spectator in the scene.
If any thing, he is too various and flexible ; too full of transitions, of glancing lights, of
salient points. If Chaucer followed up his subject too doggedly, perhaps Shakspeare was too volatile and heedless. The Muse's wing too often lifted him off his feet. He made infinite excursions to the right and the left.
" He hath done
Chaucer attended chiefly to the real and natural, that is, to the involuntary and inevitable impressions on the mind in given circumstances : Shakspeare exhibited also the possible and the fantastical,—not only what things are in themselves, but whatever they might seem to be, their different reflections, their endless combinations. He lent his fancy, wit, invention, to others, and borrowed their feelings in return. Chaucer excelled in the force of habitual sentiment; Shakspeare added to it every variety of passion, every suggestion of thought or accident. Chaucer described external objects with the eye of a painter, or he might be said to have embodied them with the hand of a sculptor, every part is so thoroughly made out, and tapgible :-Shakspeare's imagination threw over them a lustre
- Prouder than when blue Iris bends."
Every thing in Chaucer has a downright reality. A simile or a sentiment is as if it were given in upon evidence. In Shakspeare the commonest matter of
fact has a romantick grace about it; or seems to float with the breath of imagination in a freer element. No one could have more depth of feeling or observation than Chaucer, but he wanted resources of invention to lay open the stores of nature or the human heart with the same radiant light, that Shakspeare has done. However fine or profound the thought, we know what is coming, whereas the effect of reading Shakspeare is “ like the eye of vassalage encountering majesty." Chaucer's mind was consecutive, rather than discursive. He arrived at truth through a certain process ; Shakspeare saw every thing by intuition.
Chaucer had great variety of power, but he could do only one thing at once. He set himself to work on a particular subject. His ideas were kept separate, labelled, ticketed, and parcelled out in a set form, in pews and compartments by themselves. They did not play into one apother's hands. They did not re-act upon one another, as the blower's breath moulds the yielding glass. There is something hard and dry in them. What is the most wonderful thing in Shakspeare's faculties is their excessive sociability, and how they gossiped and compared notes together.
We must conclude this criticism; and we will do it with a quotation or two. One of the most beautiful passages in Chaucer's tale is the description of Cresseide's first avowal of her love.
" And as the new abashed nightingale,